This was my first Wheatley and three things stood out…
- The incredible amount of exposition in the opening chapters.
- The incredible amount of drinking.
- The racism.
That said, it would be remiss of me if I failed to state right from the off that Dennis Wheatley really does know how to write an exciting book. But before I get stuck into that, this review includes spoilers so if you don’t want to have any surprises ruined, you’d better stop reading.
What begins as two apparently unrelated plots – one involving Russian rabble-rousers in the trade union movement and the other a young lady investigating the death of her husband – soon converge to become something akin to a James Bond novel, with an evil genius trying to start WWIII by launching a stolen nuclear warhead at Moscow from his mountain lair.
It’s all genuinely thrilling and Wheatley wrings every last ounce of tension out of various imaginative set-pieces that take our heroes from the seedy streets of London to the snowy heights of the Swiss Alps.
Mary Morden’s husband was a secret agent who was murdered while attempting to infiltrate a Satanic coven somewhere in the capital. She decides that she should be the one to gather the evidence to convict his killers, so she disguises herself and tries to worm her way into the coven via a sleazy Indian chap called Ratnadatta.
Meanwhile, a fine, upstanding chap called Colonel Verney suspects a connection between the Commies and the Satanists and sends agent Barney Sullivan in to check it out. However, the defence of the realm is threatened when a megalomaniac with supernatural powers steals a plane-load of experimental rocket fuel for his own nefarious purposes.
The aforementioned exposition that occurs in the opening chapters of the book, far from holding things up, actually serves to set the scene nicely. It’s all too common these days for novels to begin by dropping the reader into the middle of the already unfolding action, so it was nice to read something that starts with a slow burn. However, not even this amount of exposition could prepare me for the absolutely astounding amount of drinking that Verney and Sullivan indulge in during the course of their adventure.
No national crisis, it seems, is too severe to prevent a quick visit to the nearest “club” for a glass of port, sherry or gin. I’m not kidding, they’re knocking this stuff back every couple of pages. After a few chapters I could only envisage them as two shambling red-faced drunkards, slurring their way from one plot point to the next, urinating themselves as they go.
And then there’s the racism. I can already hear people saying, “Ah yes, but The Satanist was published in 1960. It’s just of it’s time, that’s all.”
Yes, well…there’s being “of it’s time” and then there’s the n-word. Know what I mean? Also, as she infiltrates deeper into the Satanic coven, Mary learns that she might be expected to have sex with some of the members. She is horrified to discover that this may include one or more of the “negroes”. This is something that no decent, self-respecting white girl would ever consider, apparently.
So yes, that certainly left a sour taste.
The book concludes with Mary getting what every young lady truly desires, a marriage proposal. And that’s not all, because her suitor (ie Barney) also has a title (Lord) which means that she will too (Lady). It’s all so terribly terribly British, isn’t it?
Denis Wheatley – and Alistair Crowley (they were on and off friends) had inherited fortunes based on the drink trade, so that’s one of the reasons why its such a prominent feature in all his thrillers. Crowley lost his money through profligracy whereas Wheatley was hit by the the Great Depression, so he had to make a go of the writing.
He’s a fascinating character. British conservative and life-long atheist, he eschewed the Bible and despised the Hebrews as bigots. He identified witchcraft also as a kind of religion and was careful not to espouse any of its tenets he wrote about in his thrillers and hoped no one would see them as an invitation to experiment. Evil was always evil. This seemed counter-intuitive because many believed he must have had actual dealings with the supernatural, since he knew so much about the rituals. But he did a lot of reading plus there was always Crowley (arch pretender, narcissist and fraud) and cronies in the background.
Not a socialist, he hated paying tax and had no truck with social justice but he had a deeply moral perspective with regards to witchcraft – and to some extent religiosity per se. He regarded these idealogies it as means to subvert the moral universe – usually at the behest of another race he more or less hated: Russians. In fact, in some novels you can pretty much see witchcraft as a cypher for communism.
He was an incredibly bright man and very influential in the development of western pagan thought. Gentlemen’s clubs were the coffee shops where his brand of literati inhabited. They were echo chambers from where he would never escape his sexist and racist tendencies (though as to the latter, I don’t think he’d’ve admitted to it). As for the n word: worth remembering the Rosa Parks bus event was only five years earlier. Cancellation of the word is relatively recent.
For all his shortcomings, his stories are terrific. Wheatley is a man worthy of his place in the literary canon.
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